- Published: 7 November 2023
- ISBN: 9780241692448
- Imprint: Fig Tree
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 320
- RRP: $34.99
The Berry Pickers
I sit with my back to the wall, my pillows flat. Mae punched them and made them full, but that was hours ago. I’m holding a picture of Leah in my hands. In it, she is small, before I knew she existed. The sun is beginning to fade outside the window, and I am marvelling at how I’ve been shaped and moulded by women, even though I was absent from them most of my life.
The pain in my legs prevents me from sitting by the fire, the one beside the tree trunk that I have long considered a friend. I’m tired of this bed, of the medications, of the loneliness that comes with sickness, knowing that the people I love, no matter how much they try, will never understand my solitude. Dying is something I have to do alone. Leah, a grown woman now, visits a couple times per week. My sister Mae and older brother Ben care for me even when I don’t deserve it. My mother prays.
“Joe?” Mae opens the door a crack, her face framed by the door on one side and wall on the other.
The door opens fully, and Mae walks in. There is something joyful in her eyes. Something I haven’t seen from anyone in quite some time.
“You look happy, Mae.”
“It’s because I am.”
I try to sit up straighter. I want to be my full self for her, to show her that whatever is making her happy, makes me happy, too.
“Joe, there’s someone here to see us. And I think we might have some catching up to do.”
The day Ruthie went missing, the blackflies seemed to be especially hungry. The white folks at the store where we got our supplies said that Indians made such good berry pickers because something sour in our blood kept the blackflies away. But even then, as a boy of six, I knew that wasn’t true. Blackflies don’t discriminate. But now, lying here almost fifty years to the day and getting eaten from the inside out by a disease I can’t even see, I’m not sure what’s true and what’s not anymore. Maybe we are sour.
Regardless of the taste of our blood, we still got bit. But Mom knew how to make the itching stop at night, so we could get some sleep. She peeled the bark of an alder branch and chewed it to a pulp before putting it on the bites.
“Hold still, Joe. Stop squirming,” Mom said as she applied the thick paste. The alders grew all along the thin line of trees that bordered the back of the fields. Those fields stretched on forever, or so it seemed then. Mr. Ellis, the landowner, had sectioned the land with big rocks, making it easier to keep track of where we’d been and where we needed to go. But eventually, and always, you’d reach the trees again. Either the trees or Route 9, a crumbling road littered with holes the size of watermelons and as deep as the lake, a dark line of asphalt slithering its way through the fields that brought us there year after year.
Even then, in 1962, there weren’t many houses along Route 9, and those that were there were already old, the grey and white paint peeling away, the porches tilted and rotting, the tall grass growing green and yellow between abandoned cars and refrigerators, their rust flaking off and flying away with a strong wind. When we arrived from Nova Scotia, mid-summer, a caravan of dark-skinned workers, laughing and singing, travelling through their overgrown and rusting world, the local folks turned their backs, our presence a testament to their failure to prosper. The only time that place showed any joy at all was in the fall when the setting sun shone gold and the fields glowed under a glorious September sky.
Among all that rust and decay stood Mr. Ellis’s house. It was on the corner where Route 9 met the dirt road that led to the other side of the lake, the side without Indians, where the white people swam and picnicked on Sundays, their skin blistering under the weak Maine sun. At home, years later and before I left again, I remembered that house like it was a picture from a book or a magazine that you looked at when waiting at the bus station or the doctor’s office. The tall maples hung over the driveway, and someone had planted a long, straight line of pine trees between the house and the dirt road that led to the camps, so we couldn’t peek at it, not that we didn’t try.
“Ben, why do they bother having a house at all if it’s just gonna be all windows?” I asked my brother.
“People need a roof over their heads. It gets cold here just like home.”
“But all those windows.” I gaped.
“Windows are expensive. That’s how they show the world they’re rich.”
I nodded in agreement, even if I didn’t understand exactly. The whiteness of that house, painted every second summer, with the red trim and two columns framing the front door, was enough for me, who lived in a tiny three-bedroom with a leaky roof, to declare it “the mansion.” Years later, when I returned, Mr. Ellis long dead of a heart attack, I had fresh eyes and realized it was nothing more than a two-storey with a bay window.
When we arrived in mid-July, that summer we lost Ruthie, the fields were thick with green leaves and tiny wild berries. We were still full of excitement, the memories of hard work and long days from years past all but forgotten. My father dropped us off with the supplies we needed for the next eight to twelve weeks, and then left again the same day. The dust followed him as he headed back to the border. He went to New Brunswick to grab the same pickers who always came. The ones he could trust. Old Gerald and his wife, Julia, Hank and Bernard, twins who worked hard and stayed to themselves, Widow Agnus and her six children, all of them big and strong, and Frankie, the drunk. A funny man, scared of bears and the dark and not much of a worker.
Dad always said, “Your mother says that even people like Frankie need money and a purpose in life, even if only for eight weeks.”
“I pick more than him, Dad,” I said, nodding my head at Frankie as he absent-mindedly plopped a berry into his mouth, “and he eats just as much as he picks.”
“There are some people, Joe, that we make allowances for. You know he nearly drowned as a baby and didn’t quite grow up right after that. Nothing wrong with Frankie, God must have had a plan for him, so we take him just the way he is. He needs this each summer just like we do. He likes to come and sit ’round the fire and earn a bit of pocket change. Gives him something to look forward to.”
“Yeah, but Dad—” I started to say, annoyed that Frankie got paid in money and I picked more and all I got were new school clothes in September.
“No buts, just get back to work and be kind to Frankie. You never know when you might need kindness from people.” While Dad was away, loading the additional pickers onto the back of the truck, we cleaned out the cabin and set up the camp under the watchful and exacting eye of our mother. “You boys pull out the grass growing through the porch floor. Tidy this place up a bit.” We cut our hands pulling that grass that dared to grow in our absence. Then, we collected dry wood for the fires, one for cooking, which was lit almost all the time, and one for cleaning dishes and, on weekends, our clothes. My sister Mae and some of the other girls helped clean the cabin, and a few went to the landlord’s house like they did every summer to help his wife clean the house from top to bottom. They got a small amount of money for it, money they spent at the county fair on bobby pins, bootleg whiskey and popcorn.
We couldn’t see the lake from our cabin, but we could from the outskirts of the camp, down where Old Gerald and Julia had their tent. We were lucky to have a cabin with a roof, a door, and a few old mattresses to sleep on. Only a handful of us got to stay in a cabin. The others, including my two older brothers, Ben and Charlie, slept in a tent, their backs to the hard ground, their jackets used as pillows.
When all the other families arrived, families from all over Nova Scotia and a few from New Brunswick, the boys would get loud and boisterous. They hadn’t seen each other since last year’s berry season and had a lot of loud catching up to do. That summer, I wasn’t old enough to hang out with the boys, so I spent my time with Ruthie, who got nervous around those older boys. During the day when they were serious and working, she remembered them and loved them the same as the rest of us. But at night, when they were singing around the fire, flirting with the girls and play fighting with each other, she retreated to the cabin and slept with her back against thefar wall, her doll made out of old socks settled under her arm. Mom lay on the other side of her, a barrier to protect her from the loud boys she had forgotten.
When we’d left home that summer and headed south, seven of us had piled on that old truck. Mom, Dad, Ben, Mae, Charlie, Ruthie and me. Ben and Mae used to live at the Indian school, and every summer before that one, Mom would wait for them to come home, pretending she wasn’t. And when they did, they’d hardly have a chance to get out of that car before Mom would be on them, grabbing one and then the other, taking their faces in her hands and just standing there looking at them, like they were made of gold or something. She’d kiss them on their foreheads, repeating their names over and over again like the Hail Mary. Dad would pat Ben on the back and hug Mae before he loaded us onto the truck and headed to the border. The Indian agent would only let us see them twice a year, at Christmas and berry-picking time. “Hard work will build their character, help them to become proper contributing citizens,” Ben read from a letter once, pieced back together after Dad had ripped it up. Dad didn’t like Mr. Hughes, the fat Indian agent with little purple holes on his nose, and after Dad read that letter, Ben and Mae didn’t have to go back. They got to stay home with us and go to the same school as Charlie and me.
Now, Ben sleeps in a single bed across from me. He’s awake most nights, scared I’ll take my last breath on his shift. When he’s not in the bed, Mae is there, grumbling and snoring. It’s just us now, Mom, Mae, Ben and me. If the spirit world does exist, it’ll be good to see those people I’ve lost. Be good to give them a hug and tell them I love them, tell them I’m sorry. I have apologies to say on both sides of the great divide. If heaven doesn’t exist, I guess I’ll never know, so I’m not going to let it bother me. I’d tell Mom that I doubt heaven, but she believes that all the people she loves, who’ve passed on, are sitting at the right hand of the Lord.
On a clear night in mid-August that same summer, we all sat around the campfire. Dad had just put away his fiddle, and we were tired from dancing and singing along. Ruthie and I spread out a blanket and lay down. Our hands cradled our heads as we watched the fireflies fight the stars for attention. Those who were lucky, and old enough, headed down to Allen’s Mountain for their own fire. Mae told us tall tales about boys and girls dancing and kissing, trying to convince us that she was always on her best behaviour and never did any of those sorts of things. Neither me nor Ruthie believed her. Mae never found a party she didn’t like, where she couldn’t cause some sort of trouble. But back at our fire, talk turned to other things.
“They say it’s good, help the kids fit in, get jobs.” The old woman had hands like thick knots, but she weaved the long strips of ash into the shape of a basket without even looking down to see what she was doing.
“I say it’s horseshit. No one’s got the right to snatch our kids like that, ’specially white folk. You see how they raise ’em, all snivelling and blatting all the time. They got no joy, and now they’re tryin’ to take ours.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I love having Ben and Mae back home, but there must be something said about how they give them the teachings from the Bible,” my mother said, leaning toward the fire to see as she cast on stitches for another pair of socks. “I’m never sure if taking Ben and Mae out was the right thing, but Lewis is, as sure as the sunrise.” My mother, through no fault of her own, had come to love the church, the elaborate ceremonies replacing the ones torn from her heart during a childhood she rarely mentioned. Ruthie got up and whispered in my ear that she had to go to the bathroom, leaving a warm indent in the blanket we were sharing. She never came back to the blanket. Mom went looking for her after a bit and found her curled up, asleep in the cabin.
The very next day, Ruthie went missing.
Dad was walking up and down the rows, checking our progress, pointing out missed bushes and sloppy work. At the end of each day, he’d meet the rakers and jot down how many crates they’d picked that day. Some of the lazier ones would try to stuff the bottom of the crates with green leaves and stems, making it look like they’d picked more than they had. But Dad never fell for it, no matter how many times they tried. Pickers got paid by the crate. Mr. Ellis was strolling along one of the long ropes separating the rows when Ruthie reached Dad from the other direction, carrying a small bucket of water. Ruthie, her little arms shaking from the weight, lifted her small blue plastic bucket with a white handle, the kind we’d use to build sandcastles on Sunday afternoons.
“Wela’lin ntus.” Dad thanked Ruthie, taking the water and sipping it.
“She’s a quiet one, Lewis.” Mr. Ellis placed his sweaty hand on the top of her head and rubbed it in a circular motion, making a tsk-tsk sound with his thick tongue, like Ruthie was simple or something. She stood there and let him, his belly hanging over his belt, his jeans filthy with grease and dirt. “She’s lighter than your others, Lewis. Probably be good for her in the end, but I reckon that talking to her in that gibberish won’t help her any.” Dad took a sip and handed Ruthie the bucket before he placed his hand on her back and pointed her toward Ben and me and away from Mr. Ellis. The rest of the water sloshed as Ruthie made her way over to me. Ben was reaching for the bucket when I grabbed it and poured the rest of the water over my head. I coughed and sputtered when some got in my mouth and I swallowed it by mistake. Ruthie crouched down and rubbed my back like she’d seen Mom do a thousand times.
Sometime around noon, Dad and his blue truck crawled along the edge of the fields collecting the rakers, who were hungry for lunch. Back at the main field closest to the camp, Mom handed out bologna sandwiches. The bread was dry and stuck to the roof of my mouth. Sometimes we’d have ketchup or mustard, but most of the time just the bread and bologna. When Mom wasn’t watching, I snuck the bologna out and threw the bread to the crows. She would have found a nice strong switch if she’d seen me doing something like that. Mom had no tolerance for waste, not with seven of her own mouths to feed, plus the camp.
From the moment she steps out into the laneway before her morning shift, Hazel Bates, tea lady at Empire Fashionwear, has the curious feeling of being watched.
Curtis McCoy was early for his ten o’clock meeting so he carried his coffee to a table by the window where he could feel the watery April sun.
Robin notices her three times on the trail, nodding a friendly hello as friendly hellos are expected here, before she stops to introduce herself: Lucy.
There’s a hospital room at the end of a life where someone, right in the middle of the floor, has pitched a green tent.
What is the worst present you’ve ever received for Christmas?
Number two highlight of my thirty-ninth birthday: an extremely fit policewoman calling me interesting in front of some very hard to impress neighbours.
‘Eighteen starlit nights with you.’ Joshua Bouvier’s big brown eyes were determined.
Starbursts blink from streetlights like they’re sharing a secret as I wake to find myself slumped in the back of a cab, without any recollection of how I got here, or where I’m going.